Monday, March 23, 2009

THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED

As we began the final six-hour drive on the Tour, I reminded Vic of our first trip to the south over two decades ago. Way back then we’d decided we wanted to someday take an extensive journey through this history-steeped region, from the antebellum plantations, to the literary landmarks, to the bayou country. It was a dream deferred, but not anymore. And the icing on the cake – we were touring with our film, another dream deferred no longer.

Now, back in the corporate offices of Home Team Productions (tucked under the eaves in our attic, fondly known as the 7 ½ floor a la BEING JOHN MALKOVICH), letting reality back in a little at a time, regaining our equilibrium, the sense of jubilation and achievement grows deeper and sweeter. We feel blessed in a way mere words can’t begin to express. Jubilation – almost the same feeling you have after having a baby. We went the distance, and there were moments we didn’t think it would be possible.

As we left Mobile behind, covering ground, the road unraveling beneath and behind us like ribbon, we were quiet, contemplating where we’d been and what it all added up to. This had been our chance to travel as close to Poppa Neutrino style as we will ever have in our lives, and we knew it. I thought of Poppa’s notion of identifying and following your three deepest desires and choked up a little, knowing that at least two had just come true for us.

We drove on and on, passing through Mississippi and pushing on to Louisiana, trucker songs on the radio, mixed with a little Hank Williams and some gospel. The flat, boggy lowlands were dotted with vivid yellow wildflowers. I wondered why you never see hitchhikers anymore, and no sooner had the thought manifested than there he was, a young man with an old man’s face, sporting a straw porkpie hat and a shirt of Caribbean blue, holding a sign which read only “WACO.”

Hawks, which we’d seen in abundance the entire trip, were lazily wheeling and turning high above, looking endlessly for the next meal. (Kind of like us, we figured.) We hit Baton Rouge and turned north, stopping for lunch in a roadside Cajun joint, deep in the heart of the bayou country, Zydeco music cranking from speakers on the porch of the clapboard building which had once seen better days. The very menu lets you know that you’re not in Kansas anymore: frog eggs, frog legs, alligator, crawfish tails, and everything fried but the gumbo. Vic was considering having a ‘gator burger but feared an upset stomach for the Q&A, so we went with the less adventuresome choice of fried chicken with rice and beans. Back on the road, at length we saw the road sign: “Alexandria – 39 Miles.” It was then that it hit us – this was it. The last screening of the Tour.

Alexandria is a quiet town, and when we’d finished our traditional getting lost routine, we got ourselves to the venue, the Coughlin-Saunders Performing Arts Center. Impressive doesn’t begin to describe this 615-seat house, only four years old. Our host had told us that there was concern about the turnout – there was a barbecue festival in town for the weekend, with bands, including Blues Traveler, a huge draw in the area. To our happy surprise, we had a very respectable turnout, and once again, a great response and Q&A.

Later, we went back to the restaurant where we’d dined earlier – it had been the best meal yet, and my glass of wine had been divine, so it seemed a good idea to toast the occasion with a nightcap. The Diamond Grill had once been a fine jewelry store, complete with a vault, and the young manager and adorable bartender filled us in on the backstory of this beautiful old building, built in the twenties. As we chatted, I caught a glimpse of movement overhead from the corner of my eye. I glanced up. There was a dome above, with what I first took to be a mirror embracing its lower perimeter. Was that a reflection, or was somebody walking up there? It was just a split second’s look, and I registered only the lower portion of somebody’s legs. Maybe there was another dining room upstairs? Never mind. The conversation was interesting and I was sampling a Peter Lehman “Clancy’s” Shiraz/Cab/Merlot from Australia that was blowing my mind.

And I almost spit that nectar out when the bartender told us that the building was haunted. She offered to show us around upstairs, and recalled for us the time she and a friend were closing the restaurant, turned out all the lights, locked things up tight, left the building, crossed the street – and turned around to see every light on the third floor ablaze. That’s when the goose bumps popped on arms and neck, and there they were to remain for some time. One of the gentlemen who had been involved in the conversation got ‘em too – but “maybe it’s just cool in here,” he said. We both knew differently.

The resident apparition’s name is Stella, Brittany the bartender told us as we moved up to the empty third floor. Sometimes they use the rooms for private parties, but it’s very, very empty tonight, shrouded in shadow in spite of the overhead lights. The occasional mirror we passed spooked me badly. I kept thinking of those disembodied legs I’d seen, and surely didn’t want to spot something – or someone – in one of those dark corners, reflected behind me in the glass. “Stella” had been a lonely office worker, a maiden lady tucked unhappily away keeping the books, longing for love and never finding it. No one seems to remember what she’d looked like, back when the wealthy of Alexandria were purchasing baubles for their ladies in the best jewelry store around. No one remembers what became of her – perhaps she just continued gray and faceless, keeping her ledgers until her ultimate un-remarked demise.

The next morning we awoke, happy to know that there was a simple ten-minute drive to the airport. We hang a right out of the parking lot, a right at the Mobil station, and another right at the four way stop. And we would be there! Not so fast – that last look at the pretty countryside was woefully extended as we managed to get lost one last time. Somehow, as we always do, shamefaced and with our tails between our legs, we moped back to civilization and the airport, and boarded the plane hoping dearly that the pilot had a better sense of direction.